Australians are well aware that much of their economy is export-dependent, and that China is an increasingly vital importer of things like Aussie wine and iron ore. However, the one thing the former UK penal colony will not send to China is criminals, thanks to deep scepticism among human rights group, lawyers, and most critically, its politicians.
An extradition treaty between Australia and China has just been nixed by the nation’s leader Malcolm Turnbull after Aussie politicians on both sides opposed it.
That the treaty, signed in 2007 but still not ratified, did not even make it through Australia’s lower house of Parliament last week – and faced opposition from members of the ruling party – is not a total surprise: suspicion of Chinese intentions is common in Australia, and worries over its opaque legal system held back ratification.
Malcolm Turnbull and his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have withdrawn the treaty proposal but hope to bring it before lawmakers again, though next time with more assured support. China is not just Australia’s biggest two-way trade partner, but is also seeing a lot more Chinese arrivals. Australia receives over one million Chinese tourists a year, and hosts over 46,000 students as part of its A$20 billion ($15 billion) international education industry.
But the case against an extradition treaty was highlighted last week with the detention in China of an Australian-Chinese. Feng Chongyi, an associate professor of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), was detained at the airport and said he was interrogated but never charged (he is still a Chinese passport holder). Australian efforts to facilitate his return to Sydney were largely conducted behind closed doors.
Feng may not be a strident Beijing critic, but his work centres around the influence the Chinese government tries to wield over the Chinese-Australian diaspora.
Upon his arrival home in Sydney Feng told The Australian that ratifying the treaty would be a “terrible, terrible thing to do,” and that it would give the Chinese government powers to “get anyone”.
“In the absence of an Australia-China Extradition Treaty, Professor Feng could also not be the subject of an extradition request from China if he elected to make [a] public statement about his questioning in China,” Don Rothwell, an international law expert at the Australian National University in Canberra told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The treaty as it stands does not allow for extradition in the case of political offences, discriminatory persecution (such as on religious grounds), people who have already been punished in Australia or those at risk of torture. Nor does Australia allow extradition for cases that may invoke the death penalty.
The Chinese position is explained briefly in a South China Morning Post editorial, which suggests that Australia is now a “destination of choice” for Chinese fugitives. These outlaws are often wanted in relation to corruption probes and it is true that China has pursued many former officials to Australian shores that have embezzled millions.
The ongoing graft crackdown has driven Chinese money into the Australian property market over the past five years – one of the reasons given for the sky high real estate prices in cities like Sydney (the national median price for a first-time home buyer is now 13 times average income, up from three several decades ago).
The Australian government has to balance concerns over rule of law and human rights against the problems that inflows of illicit capital have brought via corrupt officials. Australian newspapers have repeatedly asked how, if Chinese citizens can only transfer $50,000 out of the country per year, are so many buyers from China able to purchase multi-million dollar homes? An extradition treaty might even have an upside, cooling the flow of crooked cash entering the local property market.
Turnbull recently hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Australia, which made the timing of the treaty’s rejection awkward (though Beijing has opted not to comment). The Aussie leader knows the extradition treaty is unpopular among voters, but equally that Chinese fugitives are an issue that will continue to dog Sino-Australian ties.
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